In the Spotlight • Brandon Wiers '56

“It was something I’d had in mind for many years,” said Brandon Wiers ’56, “a way of saying thanks.”

In 1997, when the research chemist retired from Procter & Gamble Co., his idea found its moment. With assets gained from a company profit-sharing plan and matching gifts from P&G, Wiers and his wife, Patricia, endowed the Thedford P. Dirkse Summer Research Fellowship.

Ted and Theresa Dirkse with Patricia and Brandon Wiers“Closing the books on 33 years of work that was made possible only by virtue of the kick start I got with Dr. Dirkse made me feel it was time to start repaying that gift,” Wiers said.

In the summers of 1954 and 1955, chemistry Professor Ted Dirkse invited a young Brandon Wiers to do research with him on the capability of silver oxide batteries to generate electricity, an idea new at the time and funded by the Office of Naval Research. By inviting him into the lab, Wiers explained, Dirkse not only gave him opportunity for professional-level research, but also for professional publication. Their summer work together was published in the Journal of the Electrochemical Society. The article, co-authored by Dirkse, gave Wiers his first professional citation. Eight more would follow, plus two patents.

The boost of that research experience and Dirkse’s recommendation won Wiers a graduate teaching assistantship at the University of Minnesota. After earning his doctorate there in 1964, Wiers moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to work for P&G. In more than three decades with the company, Wiers had a wide range of positions and responsibilities. He began as a bench chemist, and his work in calcium control led to better detergents, calcium-fortified beverages such as orange juice, and new drugs for osteoporosis and other bone diseases. P&G promoted him to manage product development activities in its international division, then to direct statistical analyses of new product safety and efficacy data, and finally to oversee distribution of millions of dollars in grant money that Procter & Gamble awarded to promising research scientists worldwide.

And none of it, Wiers said, would have unfolded without Ted Dirkse.

The chemistry professional provided direction to the novice—and more than that. “He was a father figure to me,” said Wiers, who grew up in a single-parent household. “There was nothing but encouragement, and it was decisive.”

Wanting to provide another generation of Calvin students an opportunity for the kind of formative and decisive experience he’d had, Wiers used assets he gained at retirement to endow a summer research fellowship named in honor of his mentor. Each year, professors in Calvin’s chemistry department award one or two students the Thedford P. Dirkse fellowship, which pays the students to assist them in summer research projects. So far 10 students have worked with seven different professors on projects ranging from testing air quality on Calvin’s campus to laser photochemistry.

The fellowship’s first recipient, Joel Visser ’01, found his summer work with Professor Kumar Sinniah valuable far beyond the bounds of chemistry: “Working closely with a professor is a wonderful experience. To be given ownership of a project and to learn to take that ownership taught me confidence and how to work independently,” Visser said.

When Wiers initiated the Dirkse fellowship, it was the first of its kind. Since then nine more donors have endowed similar research fellowships for students in the sciences. What’s more, the college saw such benefit to faculty and students alike that it used the Dirkse fellowship as a model to attract gifts for summer research fellowships in the humanities and social sciences. Of the 77 students working with faculty last summer, 26 of them were funded by fellowships like the one Wiers established.

Last July, 51 summers after assisting Dirkse in Calvin’s chemistry lab, Wiers was in Grand Rapids to meet Rachel Glassford and Jodi Boer, the 2006 recipients of the fellowship he endowed. And to pay a visit to Dirkse at his home. “He was, as always, most flattering in his recollection of my record as a student and as a scientist,” Wiers said.

In November, Ted Dirkse died. But again this summer, thanks to Wiers, there will be budding chemists at Calvin who can be grateful that he lived and taught as he did.